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Allegory:

12 Aug

An allegory is a narrative, whether in prose or verse, in which the
agents and actions, and sometimes the setting as well, are contrived by the
author to make coherent sense on the “literal,” or primary, level of signification,
and at the same time to signify a second, correlated order of signification.
We can distinguish two main types: (1) Historical and political allegory,
in which the characters and actions that are signified literally in their turn
represent, or “allegorize,” historical personages and events. So in John Dryden’s
Absalom and Achitophel (1681), King David represents Charles II, Absalom
represents his natural son the Duke of Monmouth, and the biblical story
of Absalom’s rebellion against his father (2 Samuel 13-18) allegorizes the rebellion
of Monmouth against King Charles. (2) The allegory of ideas
, in which
the literal characters represent concepts and the plot allegorizes an abstract
doctrine or thesis. Both types of allegory may either be sustained throughout
a work, as in Absalom and Achitophel and John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress
(1678), or else serve merely as an episode in a nonallegorical work. A famed
example of episodic allegory is the encounter of Satan with his daughter Sin,
as well as with Death—who is represented allegorically as the son born of
their incestuous relationship—in John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Book II (1667).
In the second type, the sustained allegory of ideas, the central device is
the personification of abstract entities such as virtues, vices, states of mind,
modes of life, and types of character. In explicit allegories, such reference is
specified by the names given to characters and places. Thus Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s
Progress allegorizes the Christian doctrine of salvation by telling how
the character named Christian, warned by Evangelist, flees the City of Destruction
and makes his way laboriously to the Celestial City; enroute he encounters
characters with names like Faithful, Hopeful, and the Giant Despair,
and passes through places like the Slough of Despond, the Valley of the
Shadow of Death, and Vanity Fair. A passage from this work indicates the nature
of an explicit allegorical narrative:
Now as Christian was walking solitary by himself, he espied one afar off
come crossing over the field to meet him; and their hap was to meet just
as they were crossing the way of each other. The Gentleman’s name was
Mr. Worldly-Wiseman; he dwelt in the Town of Carnal-Policy a very
great Town, and also hard by from whence Christian came.
Works which are primarily nonallegorical may introduce allegorical imagery
(the personification of abstract entities who perform a brief allegorical
action) in short passages. Familiar instances are the opening lines of Milton’s
L’Allegro and Π Penseroso (1645)
. This device was exploited especially in the poetic
diction of authors in the mid-eighteenth century. An example—so brief
that it presents an allegoric tableau rather than an action—is the passage in
Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” (1751)
:
Can Honour’s voice provoke the silent dust,
Or Flatt’ry soothe the dull cold ear of Death?

Allegory is a narrative strategy which may be employed in any literary
form or genre. The early sixteenth-century Everyman is an allegory in the form
of a morality play. The Pilgrim’s Progress
is a moral and religious allegory in a
prose narrative; Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590-96) fuses moral,
religious, historical, and political allegory in a verse romance; the third book of
Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels
, the voyage to Laputa and Lagado (1726), is
an allegorical satire directed mainly against philosophical and scientific
pedantry; and William Collins’ “Ode on the Poetical Character” (1747) is a
lyric poem which allegorizes a topic in literary criticism—the nature, sources,
and power of the poet’s creative imagination. John Keats makes a subtle use of
allegory throughout his ode “To Autumn” (1820), most explicitly in the second
stanza, which represents autumn personified as a female figure amid the
scenes and activities of the harvest season.

Sustained allegory was a favorite form in the Middle Ages, when it produced
masterpieces, especially in the verse-narrative mode of the dream vision,
in which the narrator falls asleep and experiences an allegoric dream; this
mode includes, in the fourteenth century, Dante’s Divine Comedy, the French
Roman de la Rose, Chaucer’s House of Fame
, and William Langland’s Piers Plowman.
But sustained allegory has been written in all literary periods and is the
form of such major nineteenth-century
dramas in verse as Goethe’s Faust, Part
II, Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, and Thomas Hardy’s The Dynasts. In the
present century, the stories and novels of Franz Kafka can be considered instances
of implicit allegory.

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